Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Film: “Results”

June 9, 2015
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Kevin Corrigan and Cobie Smulders in “Results”

The romantic triangle form has served film comedy for a long time, and there are some notable ones, such as The Philadelphia Story or, a personal favorite, James Brooks’ Broadcast News. This film, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is one in what’s identified as the “mumblecore” genre. While it has pleasures to offer, it’s still (sorry) kind of a letdown.

The chief pleasure is Kevin Corrigan, who just may be the comic genius the NYTimes critic has already dubbed him. He plays Danny, a pudgy, shlubby transplanted New Yorker in Austin who shows up at a local gym to get “in shape”, which means, he explains, being able to “take a punch”. The gym owner is Trevor, a demonically ambitious transplant from Australia played by Guy Pearce. The female part of the triangle, Kat, is the top trainer at the gym, who is assigned Danny as a client. Danny seems to have more money than he knows what to do with, and most of it goes towards things – like pizza, wide-screen TV and weed – that have nothing to do with “getting in shape”. As played by Cobie Smulders, Kat is, at first, even more zealous about physical fitness and getting the best “results” for her clients than Trevor.

But then, she never had a client like Danny. Corrigan pretty much owns the first hour of the film, and each tantalizing revelation of the depth of Danny’s ineptitude makes for some delightful comedy, especially his interplay with Kat, who, quite to her amazement, becomes as attracted to him as he is to her.

I wish I could say the comic fizz kept bubbling but, after a sudden shift in story and tone, what had been a refreshing cocktail becomes a flat Foster’s. Specifically, Bujalski decides to take Danny out of the triangle altogether, devoting the rest of the film to Trevor and Kat. Part of the problem is Pearce, who is simply no megawatt charmer like Redford or Clooney, or his fellow Australian Paul Hogan. Phenomenally muscled, he seems far less strained and pained lifting weights than by having to kiss his co-star. Smulders, on the other hand, is someone to watch. Bringing to mind the young Catherine Keener, in her indie-queen days, she is fresh, game and sexy. Her character’s late conversion is not credible, but that’s probably beyond what any other actress could do.

But the real story here is Kevin Corrigan, and he’s the reason I recommend the film. Danny’s obliviousness is so total, it’s almost sinister. He’s not proud of his faults, but he’s blind to the one that gets him into the most trouble: misunderstanding other people. Corrigan’s line delivery and expression are beyond quirky, falling into downright weird. Think Jack Black crossed with Peter Sellers at his looniest. And Bujalski knows that part of the fun is how uncomfortably the other characters struggle so as not to offend this rich, but impossible misfit.

A final word: this is the most un-Texas Texas film I’ve ever seen. Nobody has a western accent, there’s no horses and the only person who says he has a gun (not shown) is from New York. The characters are positively dripping with SoCal insouciance, and leave puddles. Stupefying!

Film: “Wild Tales”

May 18, 2015

This Argentinian film was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, and I recommend it, with reservations.

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Erica Rivas in “Wild Tales”

 The writer-director, Damian Szifron, has a jaundiced view of humanity, but is inclined to see the humor in how we pathetic creatures relate to each other. Of the six stories he tells, only one, the last, even hints that something else besides meanness and venality reside within the human breast. And even in that story, total disaster is just barely averted.

All of the tales are told from a comfortably successful middle-class perspective. The six stories are, in brief summary: the passengers in a plane discover a disturbing common element in their background; a waitress has dark memories from her past awakened by a customer; two drivers have a road-rage blow-up, like a Laurel and Hardy nightmare; a demolitions expert’s car is towed; a businessman discovers that his son is a hit-and-run driver; and, finally, a wedding celebration is totally demolished in a jealous rage.

While entertaining, I have to say the film falls short of the mark. The writing is clever, subtle and occasionally, brilliant. Szifron structures each tale skillfully, and has a good ear for dialogue, which is not lost in the subtitles. But, as the legend best put it, in comparison to death, which is easy, comedy is hard. And satire is doubly so, because the characters are not going to be particularly likeable. There’s simply no substitute for laughs, and I sat there, squirming, because they didn’t come.

I don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The performances seemed skillful enough, but, with two exceptions, they weren’t comic performances. All too often we see close-ups of characters who look vaguely distressed, and even angry about their situation, but which seem too mild for the absurd chaos that suddenly confronts them. This was especially hurtful in the hit-and-run story, because it was the sharpest satire. The idea that the law is easily manipulated to let the guilty off, and punish the innocent, is certainly not new. And Szifron’s treatment doesn’t hold back; its as nasty as anything Billy Wilder would have dreamed up. But the acting, both in facial expression and gesture, never threatens to explode into the exaggerated, lashed-out desperation – the wildness, if you will – that pulls out the laughter from us.

Compare this with the performances in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, a film that always makes me laugh. The two films are about the same in terms of the extremity of the situations and the stupidity and desperation of the characters. But Burn wins in laughs because the actors play it “straight”, which, in comedy terms, means they show us the most extreme human behavior in that situation.

This isn’t easy to do. But the Coens knew their clever script wasn’t enough, and they got their talented cast to go all out because farce is funniest when played for total panic; being too “real” is a loser. So even a stupid script, as in Neighbors, can get laughs when its director, Nicholas Stoller, kicks the performances up to that level, and doesn’t lose it by getting too fancy.

But I thought two actresses broke out of the pack because they added enough in terms of expression, or just plain comic shtick, to bring out the fun. Maybe they sensed that the director was just not getting their best stuff so they had to squeeze it in somehow. In the wedding story, Erica Rivas, as the bride, makes her dizzying shifts in mood totally believable, and funnier for it. Also, Rita Cortese, as a cook with a knowing touch with rat poison, is quietly hilarious.

Writer Szifron set a very high bar for his director – himself – but didn’t quite clear it. Based on the film’s reception, I know that’s a minority opinion. But there you have it.

Film: “Neighbors”

June 10, 2014

STORY: A thirtyish couple with their first baby like sex and weed and, of course, baby. They don’t think much about money, the future or any of those boring “grownup” things. Just sex, weed and baby. But one day, a fraternity buys the house next to theirs and starts having loud, crazy sex, booze and weed parties every night, which makes baby scream and drives Mommy and Daddy batshit. The Prez and VP of the frat have a mission to create wild party history, and will not “keep it down”. After warily trying to be nice, the couple declare war on the frats, intending to drive them out. Will they succeed?

GOOD STUFF:  There are some laughs here. Director Nicholas Stoller knows something about comic pacing, and the good gags sort of sneak up on you. The best involves stolen car air bags, but even the gross toilet humor can be sharp and, for want of a better word, pungent. For genuine wit, however, the closest it gets is the homo-erotic subtext between the frat Prez and his VP, played by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, respectively. They have four choice face-offs that hilariously show the extent of male self-delusion about their own sexuality.

NOT SO GOOD:  Even cartoon characters need clear motivation or else the comedy suffers. This is not a problem with the frat kids and their babes. They reminded me of the vampires in “True Blood”; totally controlled by animal appetites. But the starring roles are the parents, and they were neither likable nor believable. As played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, both skilled actors, they didn’t seem like adults at all, just overaged children who find themselves playing grownups as a goof. They seemed less human than the party vampires. By coincidence, “Ruby Sparks” was on cable that night. It’s no classic, but watch any five minutes of that film and you’ll find a quality totally missing from “Neighbors”: charm. I don’t think Stoller and company think that’s important, especially when you compare the grosses of the two films. But the laughs, even big ones, can feel empty without it.

Review: “Bullets Over Broadway” (the musical)

May 19, 2014

This is a fun show, especially for those who enjoy the frothy-light kind of musical that was popular before the genre was taken seriously by critics. The story was second to the singing, dancing and the laughs, and the composers, even the greatest like Kern and Gershwin, had to accept that.

The cleverest thing about turning Woody Allen’s delightful film into a musical was in recognizing it as the perfect vehicle for that kind of entertainment. This show would have been a Broadway hit in 1929, the year it was set. And in Susan Stroman, we have the perfect match of director-choeographer and material.  The American musical theatre is in her DNA, and she doesn’t hold back. She gets her actors to demonstrate spectacular performance skills in dance, song and comic gesture, and all while staying in character. We can see the enormous respect and love she has for the old-style Broadway “shtick” of the past, especially in the witty choreography for the “Let’s Misbehave” duet, a highlight.

The one caveat I have – and it’s a major one – may only bother those who love the film, as I do.  Part of Woody Allen’s genius is to know, even when writing a film, precisely what qualities in an actor will best serve the story. Mostly, he wants to show how a real human being will credibly behave in certain situations, and that this will make us laugh. Chazz Palminteri was so perfect as Cheech because Allen used this fine actor’s voice and facial gestures to show how even an uncultured, violent gangster could start to think of himself as a serious artist, to riotous consequences. Palminteri was funny because his passion and integrity were shown to be genuine, while the faux-artist, the playwright played by John Cusack, was more than willing to “sell out” for success.

These are the two main roles in the story, and it’s a big order to find two professional actors who can portray them, night after night, and sing and dance too! To be brief, Stroman hit the jackpot, big time, with Zach Braff as the playwright. But the talented Nick Cordero, as Cheech, was a letdown. In the film, Cheech progressed from mere annoyance at Olive’s incompetence to contempt and, finally, to uncontrollable rage, as if she was trying to destroy his newly recognized destiny as a great artist. It wasn’t only that she was so bad, but her total indifference to his pain was a personal assault, and demanded the ultimate response. Palminteri was hilarious, and a total delight. But Cordero started as merely annoyed, which was okay, but then pretty much stayed there. We never got to witness the growth of this delusion in Cheech. Because Cordero, and Stroman, failed to drive this home, the laughs just didn’t come.

 


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